The Pilgrimage Part IV - Moisés Ville

The Pilgrimage

Part IV – The Destination - Moisés Ville  

 

As they approached Jerusalem, the Seven Hills were clearly visible to the ancient pilgrims.  And from afar, the towers of the Canterbury Cathedral surely beckoned to the medieval faithful.   But out here on the plains of Santa Fe, no landmark guides this determined traveler.  No signs.  No mile stones.  In the midst of vast fields, nothing at all rises on the horizon from any direction.

I travel east on roads that are narrow, unpaved and uneven.   The roads go straight until there’s an intersection or a fork.  When a tractor approaches, I use my modest but satisfactory Spanish to ask the farmer for directions.  Then I stop a truck.  And then another one.  

After some considerable time on this bumpy ride, thank Heavens, the main road is in my sights. 

Heading into town, I drive under a double archway that announces my destination:  “Moisés Ville.  Lugar Histórico Nacional.  Cuna de la Colonización Judía.  Avenida de los Inmigrantes.”  (Moisés Ville.  National Historic Site.  Cradle of the Jewish Colonization.   Avenue of the Immigrants.)

I drive along Baron Hirsch Avenue to the intersection of Tehodoro Hertzl and Estado Israel.  Small homes and shops line the streets of this spacious and sunny town.

In the central plaza I park the car, hoist up my camera bag, and begin my stroll.  I spot a few statues and several impressive public buildings.  But at this moment in the early afternoon, the plaza is deserted and the shops are closed.  The streets are empty. There is no movement whatsoever.   Only the silence of the siesta.

A bit of Luck.  A bit of Pluck.   Are these the attributes of a successful pilgrim?

Suddenly a lone teenage girl appears on her bicycle.  I do my best to speak Spanish.  “Good afternoon.  I am visiting your town today.  My name is Jan.  I am from the United States.  I am Jewish.  Are there Jewish people living in the town now?”

My new friend responds with a big smile, “My name is Rebecca.  I am also Jewish.”

Rebecca pedals away.  She waves to me to follow.

Rebecca takes me to the home of Sarah Gabriel de Falcov.  I explain that my mission is to learn more about the history of the Jewish community.  On a moment’s notice, Sarah is pleased to be my guide. 

The most impressive building in Moisés Ville is the Kadima Theater.  It was completed in 1929.  The 300 seat theater with its classical facade is the center of the town’s cultural activities.   In years past, shows and concerts were performed, often as the “out-of-town tryout” before reaching Buenos Aires.  Such an elegant structure … I can only imagine the feeling of pride of ownership within the community.

The Escuela Iahaduth (Jewish School) is the most important historical building in Moisés Ville.  The school was founded as a Kindergarten by the Iahaduth Society in 1929.  From the 1940’s to the 1960’s, the school trained hundreds of Hebrew School teachers from all over Argentina.  After their residency in Moisés Ville, the young teachers returned to their own home towns to serve the Jewish community.  

As a former teacher myself, I can imagine the feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment of the teachers at that school.  I sense their influence on other young lives.  I understand the enduring effect of the school on the broader national community, for it is said, “A teacher’s influence is infinite; you never know where it ends.”

The original Jews of Moisés Ville, where did they pray?  Where did the men and women conduct their religious services more than one hundred years ago?  Out in an open field?  In a railroad boxcar?  (An early shelter.)  Where was their synagogue?  Did they construct a hut?  Where was their shul?  Where did they read from their prayer books?  Where did they chant from the Sefer Torah, the holy scroll of Biblical scripture?  Where were the weddings?  The Bar Mitzvahs?  The funerals? 

I imagine that as the community grew, the immigrants, according to their tradition, contributed small amounts to a building fund.  Perhaps more prosperous Jews in Argentina or elsewhere donated larger amounts.

“On account of its unparalleled beauty,” in1996, the Brener Synagogue was declared a National Historic Monument.  Built in 1909, the Brener Synagogue was the area's primary place of worship for more than seventy years.  While the building is officially named in honor of Marcus Sterman in recognition of his donation of land for its construction, it has come to be known locally as the Brener Synagogue after Samuel Brener who oversaw its construction and decoration.

The building now needs reconstruction and renovation.   An effort is underway to restore this important local symbol of the community's history and to honor its founders, the pioneers known as judios gauchos (literally, "Jewish cowboys").  It is closed to the public.  Fortunately, my guide, Sarah, has the keys.

The Aron HaKodesh, the Holy Ark where the sacred Torah scrolls are kept, was hand-carved by Abraham Silberman in a colorful, Renaissance style.  On either side is a winged eagle blowing a Shofar, the ram’s horn sounded during High Holy Days.  Suspended from the ceiling is an enormous bronze chandelier that once hung in the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires.

Those “Jewish Cowboys” … How thankful they must have been to be blessed with such a splendid house of worship so soon after enduring their initial hardships in their new home.  And now, at least for the moment in this now empty sanctuary, how thankful am I that I can share their space.

In honor of the town’s most generous benefactor, the center of Jewish religious life in Moisés Ville today is Congregación Israelita Barón Hirsch.  The synagogue gleams white in the afternoon sun.  The furnishings are polished wood and the interior is bright with unobstructed views of the Holy Ark from both the main floor of the sanctuary and the balcony.  When I visit a synagogue, why am I always curious about the names inscribed on the large memorial plaques?  Do I hope to find a long-lost deceased relative?  Or will I learn something of the origin of the members of the congregation?  Are they from Eastern Europe or Central Europe?  Do the names indicate emigration from North Africa or the Middle East?  Do the names, especially the first names, suggest the inexorable acceptance of local custom?

On the memorial plaque in the Baron Hirsch Synagogue I found:

Elena Notkovich, Moses Notkovich, Abraham Ulmansky, Moses Riveles, Samuel Fischer, Sara Fischer and Hirsch Katz. 

I also found Julio Fritzler, Jorge Jacobson, Carlos Zinger and my favorite, Pedro Glasberg.  I don’t know why I smiled when I saw that particular name.  But I would have liked to have met Señor Glasberg.

The Moisés Ville Jewish Historical Museum boasts no Camille Pissarro or Marc Chagall painting.  No Jacques Lipchitz or Jacob Epstein sculpture is installed on the grounds.   Instead I find sewing machines, farm tools, hair salon equipment, portable typewriters and a host of implements and furnishings that attest to the growth of a poor immigrant farming community into a prosperous and modern society.

On display in a museum of this type are the inevitable photographs and documents.  The documents here include contracts, and 19th and early 20th Century passports.  The passports of the German immigrants in the mid-20th Century have the bold-faced, tragic “J” stamped in red ink. 

Posted on the wall is the list of names of the original group of immigrants who sailed from Poland on the Steamship Weser and arrived in Argentina on August 14, 1889.  Next to the list is a map of their journey.

What a trip!  Overland from Kamenetz (now a city in Belarus) to Krakow to the northern German seaport, Bremen.  Then on board the Weser through the English Channel, down the coast of France, Spain and Portugal, west of the Bay of Biscay, across the Equator and along the bulge of the coast of West Africa, a lengthy sail down the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, across the Tropic of Capricorn to Buenos Aires!   What a trip!  What determination!

On a table just below the map sits a pair of copper and brass samovars, dutifully stowed in the luggage by the Eastern European immigrants.  Treasures from the “Old Country” carried across oceans as a reminder of their traditions.  

When my mother’s mother came to America in 1904, she brought her candle sticks.  My mother’s father, a trumpet player, brought his music.  My father’s parents, wealthy retail shoe merchants in Nurnberg, Germany before the War, fled with some jewelry and silverware. 

Regardless of what they carried or where they came from, they all escaped with their lives and the hope of freedom and opportunity for themselves and their family.  Moisés Ville is yet another chapter in the book of success of the Jewish Diaspora.

My mission is complete. I may have struggled a bit to reach my destination but the evening ride back to the hotel was pleasant and uneventful. 

My pilgrimage is a success.   I made new friends.  I learned some history.  I shared the space with “long-lost cousins.”  I remembered the departed.

My Identity with My People is reconfirmed.  In a small farming town on the plains of a far-off land, My Identity with My People is reconfirmed.  

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